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Essay

D*S Essay Contest: Daniel Schutz

by Grace Bonney

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[Editor’s note: All week we will be posting the finalists for our first D*S Essay contest. The theme was “HOME”. Voting will begin on Friday after all finalists have been notified and posted. Thank you so much to everyone who entered this year’s contest! -Grace]

“much depends
upon
a red wheel
barrow…”
-William Carlos Williams

Seven years after my mom died my dad threw away a pair of salt and pepper shakers that my mom had kept on the stove. They were tan, ceramic, and looked vaguely like coffee mugs. They were not something one would find in a magazine, or a blog, or even a flea market. There was no aesthetic value to them even in a fun, kitschy kind of way. I’m not sure how they ever came to be in our house but they were always there, sitting on the stove and splattered with oil. I could count on their presence in much the same way that I counted on seeing a dark stain on the carpet by the left foot of my parents’ coffee table or an old dress shirt in my closet I’d never wear again but could not bring myself to give away. They were benign and unremarkable objects and yet there they were all the same, signifiers of a place I called home.

After my mom died most of her things remained in the house. My parents’ bedroom furniture- a bed frame, dresser, and dressing table-handed down to my mom by her grandmother ,is still used by my dad. The dressing table, however, is now where he checks his blood pressure every morning and every night. And as he sits there, waiting for that cuff to puff and then deflate around his arm, my dad looks at photos my mom stuck into the corners of the dressing table mirror; me in diapers on a panda bear rug being held by my dad; my parent’s kissing in front of a blank wall; and me in a soccer uniform, my head as big as the ball I am holding.

For a man who had done so little to change the house, to leave so much of what made it our home, he was able to throw away the salt and pepper shakers with seeming and frustrating ease. He could not even remember the shakers at first inquiry. He thought, perhaps, he had only put them away in a cabinet. Perhaps in the one to the left of the stove where he keeps his multi-vitamins. No, the shakers were not there. My dress shirt was still in my closet, buttoned all the way up and hanging on a plastic hanger. The carpet stain in the living room was definitely still there and had begun colonizing several new territories. But those shakers, those had to go. Or maybe they didn’t.

[Continued after the jump…]

I cannot ascribe the importance or imperative nature of my father’s decision to throw the shakers away, and neither can he. There were merely something he no longer wanted, so he threw them out. Though not aware of the maxim, when in doubt, throw it out, he certainly abided by that principle. And I, being the sentimental son that I am, I being the one who cannot throw out a dress shirt because it is the very one I wore to my 8th grade graduation, am never in doubt about such objects. If something was in the house when my mom was alive then it needs to stay in the house. The rusted step ladder? Yeah, I stood on that when I brushed my teeth as a child That needs to stay. The fake topiary my mom bought from one of her church friends and kept on the dining room table? That had to stay, at least for a little while. (My dad and I, in rare aesthetic accord, agreed that the topiary’s value as an object of memory was greatly diminished by its lack of attractiveness, so we threw it out). The salt and pepper shakers, though never formally discussed, never seemed at risk and that is probably why I never thought to talk to my dad about them. Though not attractive, they were plain and inoffensive, an item of utility that, for all its blandness, still performed that much needed task of properly portioning out seasoning.

When I grilled my dad so harshly about the shakers it was, of course, was not about the shakers themselves, it was about the memories I had imbued them with. The disposal of the shakers meant a disposal of my memories, and therefore, in part, a throwing away of a memory of my mom. I could not understand why my dad did not see the shakers in the same way that I did. Why, after living with them for twenty five years, did he suddenly object to them when he did? There was no answer to this question. There was no pattern to find in my father’s ascription of meaning to household objects just as there wasn’t any pattern to mine. I had no real affinity for the shakers except for the fact that I saw them every day of my life and took them to be a constant. If the shakers were there, then my mom was there, and if she was there, I was home.

Surprisingly, for a man I have always taken to be lacking in sentimentality, I find bits of nostalgia around the house. The main bathroom, repainted a powder blue shortly before my mom died, has a high window sill framed by lace curtains. When my mom retired she brought home boxes of things from her office, including all the knickknacks she had around her desk and bookcases. The house was free of any awards or certificates my mom had achieved, but man did she fill that bathroom windowsill with kitsch. She arranged, in no particular order, a bendable Uncle Sam doll, a pin of Woodstock from Peanuts, a tiny nun in a blue habit, a Pound Puppy in a red diaper, and a clothespin painted brown, turned upside down and outfitted with googly eyes so that it looked like a reindeer. I wish I had a story behind each of these objects but I don’t and I don’t think my mom did either. She just liked them and so she arranged them on the sill. No matter matter how dusty the rest of the house is that window sill is always sparkling and each figurine is dusted and in place just as my mom had arranged them. I never would have guessed my dad would perform such a kindness.

Sometimes when I go over to visit my dad I find him dancing by himself with the world music blasting from the stereo and the scent of onions coming from the kitchen. My dad is, as always, in white tube socks, dark slacks held up by suspenders, and a button up dress shirt that sags around his shoulders. His eyes are closed and his hands are raised in front of him, the right a little bit higher than the left, as if dancing with a partner. His face has the look of a man who is concentrating. I have seen this before. This is my dad’s dancing face. It is the one my mom would laugh at because, who wouldn’t laugh at a man who pressed his lips together and stuck out his tongue when dancing? I leave my dad to to his music and follow the scent of onions into the kitchen. I listen for the sizzle of oil and the sound of the 12 inch TV my mom would squint at while cooking dinner. I inhale and take in the sharpness of the onions. I want want to turn the corner and see my mom at the stove, shaker in hand. I want her to offer me a baby carrot and a glass of wine but there is only a dirty pan on the stove and an empty glass of milk in the sink. It doesn’t matter. It’s still home to me. –Daniel Schutz

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Comments

  • Bawling (at work no less, how embarrassing). This has got to be one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read. Thank you for this. Your depiction of your Dad dancing by himself tore me right open.

  • So beautifully rendered! Brought tears to my eyes. All this beautiful sentiment, written by a son, love.

  • I love this. I can relate to this story so well. I don’t usually read these things but decided to on a whim. Curious. And it took me back to my home. The similar comparisons. It made me teary eyed. I associate everything with memories. And have a hard time “throwing away” memories. I lost my father less than a year ago and know all too well the pains of home not being the place it once was.

  • My mom had approximately 372637 pieces of Tupperware when I was growing up. When I went off to college I took this brown mi bowl with me. (It was functional, while being a subtle reminder of home.) One of my new roommates used it as a mop bucket. Naturally, I was horrified. But I didn’t want to come across as a total spaz so I just let it go. I was the second of the three of us to move out at the end of that year. When I was unpacking at my new (one bedroom, PTL) apartment I realized the bowl was missing, so I called the last remaining roommate. “Oh, I just left it on the porch with the trash..” I raced across town back to the apartment and saw that the porch was empty. I went to the leasing office to as if I could borrow the key so I could check for some items left behind. “We’ve already started carpet cleaning and painting. Anything left was thrown out.” They gave me the key, anyway, because I guess I looked a tinge homicidal. The only thing left when I went back were bait traps under the sink and paint gear.

    I was clearly devastated. My mom is still very much alive and gives zero shits about that ancient (and ugly) mi bowl. It was her bowl, after all. She has no idea why it meant so much to me, and neither do I, but it still gives me a lump in my throat when I think about it.

  • This is the first of these essays that I have read that truly felt like it dealt with the meaning of “Home,” a keeper of memories.

  • This is so beautifully written.. I keep trying to articulate my feelings about it, but as a mother of an adult son, it just makes me speechless!

  • Beautifully written, touching and very evocative of “home”. I had a similar experience recently in which my dad had casually given away something from my family home that had meant a lot to me, and the loss of it felt a bit devastating to me.

  • My sister and I recently cleared out my dad’s home of 57 years and moved him into a smaller assisted living apartment. You hit the nail on the head with so many memories and feeling being evoked in the “throwing away” process. Painful and profound, all at once.

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